The Parveen Shakir Urdu Literature Festival’s opening in Islamabad on Friday was a breath of fresh air as a small, symbolic means of revitalizing the literary importance of Urdu. The festival aimed to promote Pakistan’s Urdu literary traditions and heritage. There was a time when Urdu was the only language that was heard in intellectual circles throughout the country. Although the memory of this grandeur has all but faded, we have the works of writers such as Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal and Saadat Hassan Manto to remind us, at least of the pervasiveness of intellectualism in our national language. The works of these icons broke boundaries of socio-cultural and philosophical issues. Presently, it seems our national language, and indeed our national languages, are losing out, most recently with Pakistan Radio cutting its popular transmission of regional languages.

The problem with Urdu’s decline from intellectual narratives is not diminishing use in the general sense. It is a perception issue. In terms of educated, informed narratives, the use of Urdu has been relegated to the public school system. There is a parallel education system in Pakistan that runs in the Urdu medium, that is viewed as second class and secondary for that reason amongst others. Many urban private schools offer Urdu as an optional subject only, encouraging and enforcing the strict use of english in conversation and the classroom. As a result, proficiency in english for new generations, is seen as synonymous with a good education, with intellectualism, and lately, as a status symbol. More often than not, Pakistanis will deride their own public figures and sportsmen for a lack of eloquence in english, when it is not our first language. The class system of Pakistan has become more stratified and more problematic than ever before, with the complexities of two distinct narratives in two different languages adding to the widening disparity and alienation.